Hundreds of films are set to hit Potsdamer Platz this month and the battle for the Golden Bear, handed out by jury president Juliette Binoche, is on. Film editor Paul O’Callaghan on what to expect at this year’s Berlinale (Feb 7-17).
The 2019 festival marks the end of an era as director Dieter Kosslick, after almost 18 years at the helm, is set to hang up his ostentatiously wide-brimmed hat at the conclusion of the 69th edition. Barring any last-minute surprises, it seems Kosslick intends to stick the landing by adhering to his tried and tested formula: a sprawling programme that prioritises diversity over tight curation, a handful of hotly anticipated new films by art-house heavyweights, and a splash of red-carpet glamour.
Many feel that the Berlinale is in desperate need of a radical refresh, as evinced by the fact that the festival has seen a steady decline in headline-grabbing world premieres in recent years. But while we’re eager to see what changes incoming directors Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rijssenbeek will bring, the Berlinale remains the most democratic and accessible of Europe’s major film festivals, prioritising local audiences over industry elites, and offering a little something for every subsection of the filmgoing public.
THE BIG NAMES
The festival kicks off with Lone Scherfig’s The Kindness of Strangers, an original ensemble drama set during a New York winter, starring Andrea Riseborough and Zoe Kazan. The Danish director’s work tends to be solid rather than spectacular, but her last film, 2016’s romantic wartime drama Their Finest, was a crowd-pleasing gem, so here’s hoping for more of the same. If celeb-spotting is at the top of your festival agenda, you should head to Potsdamer Platz for the German premiere of Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic Vice (C), starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell. Meanwhile, this year’s eclectic Panorama line-up includes directorial efforts by a pair of Hollywood A-listers. Jonah Hill’s Mid90s is a nostalgia-soaked love letter to skater culture featuring man-of-the-moment Lucas Hedges, while Casey Affleck’s Light of My Life is a post-apocalyptic survival drama, in which Affeck stars alongside Elisabeth Moss.
THE THRILL OF THE FRINGE
The Berlinale tends to value substantial world cinema over Hollywood gloss, and this year’s programme features enticing new works from celebrated auteurs. Agnès Varda’s self-reflective Faces Places was one of our favourite releases of last year, and the inimitable nonagenarian filmmaker shows no sign of slowing down, with her new autobiographical doc Varda by Agnès screening out of competition. François Ozon follows up his camp erotic thriller Double Lover with the more weighty-sounding By the Grace of God (C), inspired by a real-life case of sex abuse in the Catholic Church. Poland’s Agnieszka Holland, last here in 2017 with her Silver Bear-winning eco-thriller Spoor, returns with Mr. Jones (C), the true story of a Welsh photographer who uncovered the horrifying Soviet famine of 1932 to 1933. And while Germany’s Fatih Akin has a spotty track record, we’re intrigued by the prospect of his new horror-thriller The Golden Glove (C), based on the life of 1970s serial killer Fritz Honka, who preyed on prostitutes in Hamburg’s red light district.
If you’re on the lookout for films with a strong local connection, Annekatrin Hendel’s Schönheit & Vergänglichkeit (P) promises an intimate portrait of iconic Berghain doorman Sven Marquardt, focusing on his formative years as part of the East Berlin punk scene and his work as a photographer. Sven inevitably also features in David Dietl’s breezy doc Berlin Bouncer (PDK), alongside fellow local nightlife luminaries Smiley Baldwin and Frank Künster. Uli M Schueppel’s The Breath (P) sees a disparate bunch of Berliners describe surprising or traumatic moments from their past. And Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva (P) profiles a free-spirited Italian model/sex worker who found her spiritual home in Kotti.
CHINA IN FOCUS
Broadening our geographical horizons, it looks set to be a vintage year for Chinese cinema, with a trio of major Berlinale award-winners heading back to duke it out for further bear statues. Wang Xiaoshuai (Beijing Bicycle) returns with relationship drama So Long, My Son; Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, Hero) goes back to his art-house roots with One Second, an intimate celebration of cinema centred around a movie-mad fugitive and a homeless girl. And Wang Quan’an (Tuya’s Marriage) enters the fray with Mongolian production Öndög. Meanwhile, other strands fly the flag for under-the-radar Chinese talent. Twenty-two-year-old Zhu Xin is the youngest director in this year’s Forum; his debut feature Vanishing Days is a compellingly enigmatic coming-of-age tale with shades of Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul. And in Panorama, Zi Xiang’s A Dog Barking at the Moon offers a rare glimpse of middle-aged queer life in the People’s Republic.
And if, for some unfathomable reason, you can’t find a new film among the hundreds on offer that you’re willing to take a punt on, you can play it safe by revisiting highlights from 40 years of the Panorama strand, or catching up with iconic performances by formidable British actress Charlotte Rampling, the subject of this year’s Homage.
10 films worth queueing for
Titles from this year’s lineup we’ve already seen and loved.By David Mouriquand and Paul O’Callaghan
AMAZING GRACE (C) Unseen for decades at the behest of its subject, Sydney Pollack’s spine-tingling 1972 concert film captures late Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin at the height of her performing powers, and receives an extremely belated European premiere in this year’s Out of Competition strand.
A COLONY (UNE COLONIE) (G) This Canadian standout from the Generation section is Geneviève Dulude-De Celles’ assured debut feature. It’s an authentic story about fitting in at a difficult age, bolstered by note-perfect performances from a cast of young newcomers.
THE CROSSING (GUO CHUN TIAN) (G) Bai Xue’s first feature sees a 16-year-old starting to smuggle goods across the transit zone between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. It’s a deftly balanced coming-of-age story that avoids well-trodden tropes.
HANNAH (H) Charlotte Rampling wows in Andrea Pallaoro’s under-seen 2017 drama, which won her the Volpi Cup for Best Actress in Venice. She plays a woman driven into an austere existence as she shoulders the sins of her recently-incarcerated husband. Impactful and unmissable.
THE LAST TO SEE THEM (Gli ultimi a vederli vivere) (F) The opening credits of this bold drama reveal that the protagonists, an unassuming rural Italian family, will soon be murdered by home invaders. The film follows them as they unwittingly fritter away their last hours on earth, with increasingly nerve-shredding results.
MID90S (P) Jonah Hill makes the leap from schlubby screen star to sharp-eyed auteur with his surprisingly great directorial debut, a nuanced portrait of listless teens with shades of Larry Clark’s Kids and a killer soundtrack.
NEVER SLEEP AGAIN (NIE WIEDER SCHLAFEN) (R) A true hidden gem unearthed for this year’s Retrospective, Pia Frankenberg’s 1992 feature is an immersive, wryly amusing account of three women wandering around post-wall Berlin, trying to figure out exactly how they’re meant to feel about the newly reunified nation.
RETROSPEKT (F) This Belgian-Dutch co-production is an elliptical, timeline-hopping puzzle box which deals with domestic abuse and sees a woman recovering her memories following an accident. It’s as inventive as it is thought-provoking.
SHOOTING THE MAFIA (P) Veteran documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto has devoted her career to championing heroic women. Her latest feature profiles fearless octogenarian Letizia Battaglia, whose jaw-dropping photography exposed the atrocities of Palermo mobsters.
WHAT SHE SAID: THE ART OF PAULINE KAEL (P) A no-brainer for nostalgic cinephiles, this inspiring doc celebrates the legendary lm critic by blending evocative archive footage, slick movie montages and reams of Kael’s sublime, punchy prose.
PDK: Perspektive Deutsches Kino